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Scott's party at the South Pole. Henry Bowers via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Scott's party at the South Pole. Henry Bowers via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This Explorer's Corpse Has Been Trapped in Ice for More Than a Century

Scott's party at the South Pole. Henry Bowers via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Scott's party at the South Pole. Henry Bowers via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

You may know the sad story of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, the British explorer who aimed to be the first to reach the South Pole—only to arrive in January 1912 to find a Norwegian flag had been planted by explorer Roald Amundsen five weeks prior. Among other setbacks, the Scott expedition was plagued by technical difficulties, infirm ponies, and illness during their 800-mile trek across the Ross Ice Shelf back to their base camp in McMurdo Sound.

Ultimately, all five men perished before they reached the camp. Petty Officer Edgar Evans suffered a head injury, a serious wound on his hand, and frostbite before dying at a temporary campsite on the return journey. Captain Lawrence Oates, suffering severely from frostbite, voluntarily left the camp one night and walked right into a blizzard, choosing to sacrifice himself rather than slow the other men down. Captain Scott, Lieutenant Henry "Birdie" Bowers, and Doctor Edward Adrian Wilson subsequently died in late March of a vicious combination of exposure and starvation.

The makeshift camp in which the last three men died was only 11 miles from a supply depot. When their frozen corpses were discovered on the ice shelf by a search party the following November, a cairn of snow was built around them, tent and all, as there was no soil in which to bury them. A cross made of skis was added to the top. Before they left, surgeon Edward Leicester Atkinson, a member of the search party, left a note in a metal cylinder at the site:

November 12, 1912, Lat. 79 degrees, 50 mins. South. This cross and cairn are erected over the bodies of Captain Scott, C.V.O., R.N., Doctor E. A. Wilson, M.B. B.C., Cantab., and Lieutenant H. R. Bowers, Royal Indian Marine—a slight token to perpetuate their successful and gallant attempt to reach the Pole. This they did on January 17, 1912, after the Norwegian Expedition had already done so. Inclement weather with lack of fuel was the cause of their death. Also to commemorate their two gallant comrades, Captain L. E. G. Oates of the Inniskilling Dragoons, who walked to his death in a blizzard to save his comrades about eighteen miles south of this position; also of Seaman Edgar Evans, who died at the foot of the Beardmore Glacier. “The Lord gave and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

But something even more curious happened next.

In the century and change since Scott and his comrades died, the cairn-tomb has been slowly moving. That’s because it was erected on top of a 360-foot-thick section of ice—the Ross Ice Shelf, which is constantly fed by glaciers on either side. As of 2011, according to the Polar Record, it was buried under approximately 53 feet of ice, as the surface accumulates more ice and the bottom of the shelf melts and refreezes. Assuming the rate of accumulation has been approximately the same for the last five years, they’re about 55 feet inside the ice by now.

The north edge of the ice shelf also grows and shifts, as the entire plate moves slowly toward the water’s edge. As such, the cairn, the tent, and the corpses have traveled about 39 miles away from their original geographic location, and they’re still on the move. No one seems to have pinpointed exactly where they are, but glacierologists who have weighed in on the topic generally believe the bodies are still preserved intact [PDF].

Within another 250 years or so, the bodies of Scott, Bowers, and Wilson will have at last traveled to the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf, where it meets McMurdo Sound in the Ross Sea. By then, they’ll be encased in more than 325 feet of ice. The ice is not as thick at the front of the shelf as it is where the cairn began its journey, and so they could be embedded low by the time they get to the water.

It’s tempting to imagine that once the bodies meet the edge of the ice shelf in about two and a half centuries, they’ll just slide out of the melted ice and splash into the ocean. But that’s not quite how it works. As the Ross Ice Shelf advances further out to sea, every 50 to 100 years it can no longer support its own weight and the shelf calves off an iceberg. The particular chunk of the ice shelf holding the remains of Scott and his men is expected to break off into an iceberg (or possibly a mini version called a growler or bergy bit) before they get to the front of the ice shelf at the water. Back in 2011, the Polar Record forecasted that the special day will fall in 2250 or thereabouts.

If all goes as predicted, this means that Captain Scott, Lieutenant Bowers, and Doctor Wilson will then get to ride around the Ross Sea—and later the Southern Ocean—inside of an iceberg about 350 years after their deaths.

Depending on where the berg with the British bodies breaks off from the ice shelf, it will probably stay local and head toward the Antarctic Peninsula and the South Shetland Islands. The iceberg will almost certainly melt someday, be it in a decade or a century. Then, the dead men will be free-floating in the water, where, depending on a host of circumstances, they’ll stay until currents and sea animals have their way with them. Their skeletons are then predicted to wash up somewhere, possibly the South Shetlands—but who can say for sure? All we can really do is keep an eye out for them in the area in about 250 years.

Although the deaths of Robert F. Scott and his team were tragic, it’s possible to imagine that as explorers, they might have approved of the far-out adventure their bodies would endure—centuries after their final one got cut a bit short.

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Chris Radburn—WPA Pool/Getty Images
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politics
The Secret Procedure for the Queen's Death
Chris Radburn—WPA Pool/Getty Images
Chris Radburn—WPA Pool/Getty Images

The queen's private secretary will start an urgent phone tree. Parliament will call an emergency session. Commercial radio stations will watch special blue lights flash, then switch to pre-prepared playlists of somber music. As a new video from Half As Interesting relates, the British media and government have been preparing for decades for the death of Queen Elizabeth II—a procedure codenamed "London Bridge is Down."

There's plenty at stake when a British monarch dies. And as the Guardian explains, royal deaths haven't always gone smoothly. When the Queen Mother passed away in 2002, the blue "obit lights" installed at commercial radio stations didn’t come on because someone failed to depress the button fully. That's why it's worth it to practice: As Half as Interesting notes, experts have already signed contracts agreeing to be interviewed upon the queen's death, and several stations have done run-throughs substituting "Mrs. Robinson" for the queen's name.

You can learn more about "London Bridge is Down" by watching the video below—or read the Guardian piece for even more detail, including the plans for her funeral and burial. ("There may be corgis," they note.)

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Nicole Garner
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History
How One Widow's Grief Turned a Small Town Into a Roadside Attraction
Nicole Garner
Nicole Garner

Like many small towns, the southwest Missouri town of Nevada (pronounced not as the state, but as Nev-AY-duh) loves to tell tales. Incorporated in 1855, the 8000-person city was once a railroad hub and a former home to the outlaw Frank James, the elder brother of the more infamous Jesse James. But the one story Nevada residents love to tell above all others isn't about anyone famous. It's about an atypical above-ground grave in the town's oldest cemetery, the man who's interred there, and how he can't get any rest.

Scan of the Nevada Daily Mail from March 4, 1897.
Nevada Daily Mail; March 4, 1897.
Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

On March 4, 1897, the body of a young man was found near Nevada, Missouri, apparently struck by lightning. The local newspaper, the Nevada Daily Mail, printed the story of his death that evening right next to the news that William McKinley had been sworn in as president that day; a bold-faced headline declared "Death Came Without Warning," and noted “His Clothing Torn From His Body." A reporter at the scene described how the body, which was found around 11 a.m., was unrecognizable at first. Eventually the young man's father identified him as Frederick Alonzo "Lon" Dorsa, and the coroner determined that an umbrella was the cause of Lon's electrocution.

Lon left behind a widow whose name was never mentioned in newspapers; to this day, other printed versions of the Dorsas' story omit her identity. But she had a name—Neva Dorsa—and her grief led her to commission a singularly peculiar grave for her husband—one that would open her up to years worth of ridicule and also make their small town a roadside attraction.

A funeral announcement in the Daily Mail noted that undertakers had prepared Lon's body in a "neat casket" before a funeral service set for March 7. A follow-up article the next day read that Lon's funeral was widely attended, with a large procession to the cemetery and burial with military honors. His widow—whose name was determined from a marriage license filed at the Vernon County courthouse showing that Lon married a Neva Gibson on February 12, 1895—had gone from a newlywed to a single mother in just two years.

But, Lon's first interment was temporary. Neva had arranged a grand resting place for her husband, which wasn't ready in the short time between his death and the funeral. Modern newspaper retellings of Lon and Neva's tale say she ordered a large, above-ground enclosure from the Brophy Monument Company in Nevada. A large piece of stone—some accounts say marble while others suggest limestone or granite—was shipped in via railroad car. When it arrived, the stone was too heavy to move, so a local stonecutter spent more than a month chiseling away before the piece was light enough to be pulled away by horses. A wire story described the stone tomb as being "12 feet long, 4 feet wide and 5 feet high. Its weight at completion was 11,000 pounds."

Before Lon’s body was placed inside, Neva made a few key additions—specifically a hidden pane of glass that let her view her husband:

"A piece of stone, covered to represent a bible [sic], is the covering of the aperture. It can be lifted easily by the widow's hand and when Mrs. Dorsa's grief becomes unusually poignant, she goes to the cemetery and gazes for hours at a time upon the face of her dead husband."

The Daily Mail covered the second tomb's installation with morbid attention to detail on May 6, 1897, precisely two months after Lon was initially buried:

"When the grave was opened this morning the coffin looked as bright and new as when buried but it had water in it which had at one time nearly submerged the body. The remains looked perfectly natural and there were no evidences of decomposition having sat in—no odor whatover [sic]. A little mould [sic] had gathered about the roots of his hair and on the neck, otherwise the body looked as fresh as when buried."

The newspaper called the tomb a "stone sarcophagus" and noted that Neva was there to examine her husband's corpse and watch the reburial of his remains. There was likely no inkling from those present, or the community who read about it in that evening's paper, that Neva had designed the tomb with unexpected and usual features, like the pivoting stone Bible that would reveal Lon's face below when unlocked and moved.

Instead, the newspaper suggested that the "costly mousoleum [sic] provided for the reception of his remains is the tribute of her affection."

Lon Dorsa's grave.
Lon Dorsa's grave at Deepwood Cemetery in Nevada, Missouri.
Nicole Garner

Following Lon's re-interment, Neva managed her grief by visiting her deceased husband regularly. Her home was near his grave—the 1900 U.S. Census listed her as a 25-year-old widow living on south Washington Street in Nevada, the same street as the cemetery—and three years after her husband's death, she was employed as a dressmaker, working year-round to provide for their young children, Beatrice and Fred.

By 1905, a new wave of public scrutiny hit the Dorsa (sometimes spelled Dorsey) family when the details of Neva's specially designed, above-ground grave began circulating. It's not clear who reported the story first, but the Topeka Daily Capital, published across the Kansas border 150 miles from Nevada, published a piece, which eventually spread to The St. Louis Republic. Early that spring, the same story was printed in the Pittsburgh Press, a Chicago church publication called The Advance, and in the summer of 1906, a description of Lon Dorsa's crypt had made it nearly 1000 miles to the front page of the Staunton Spectator and Vindicator in Staunton, Virginia:

"The strangest tomb in America, if not in the world, is that which rest the remains of Lon Dorsa in Deepwood cemetery, Nevada, Mo. It is so constructed that the widow can look upon her deceased husband at will, by the turning of a key in a lock which holds a stone Bible just above the remains."

Articles at the time noted that Lon's remains were in an airtight tomb and that scientists supposedly told Mrs. Dorsa that her husband's body would be well-preserved in those conditions, but decomposition had already taken place: "It [the body] has turned almost black, but the general outline of the features remains unchanged."

According to a 1997 walking tour pamphlet of Deepwood Cemetery, it wasn't long before community members caught on that Neva visited the cemetery all too often: "Fascinated children hung about to watch the lady arrive in her buggy. If she saw them, she'd go after them with a whip, shrieking like a madwoman …" the guide stated. Eventually, "her family had the pivot removed and the Bible cemented down."

Local lore suggests that the publicity and Lon's deterioration drove Neva to insanity. Some say she ended up in an asylum and died soon after—a fairly believable tale, considering Nevada was home to one of the state's hospitals for mental illness. However, a list of Deepwood Cemetery lot owners, found at the Vernon County Historical Society, doesn't have a burial space for Neva.

A more likely explanation—based on a listing on Find a Grave, a website that indexes cemeteries and headstones, and which matches Neva's personal information—suggests she simply remarried and moved to California. The California Death Index, 1945-1997, shows that a Neva (Gibson) Simpson died Dec. 30, 1945 in Los Angeles. The birth date and place match those of Neva (Gibson) Dorsa.

Newspaper clipping featuring a picture of a skull.
Nevada Daily Mail, Nov. 30, 1987. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.
State Historical Society of Missouri

Wherever Neva ended up, Lon's body didn't exactly rest in peace. In July 1986, vandals broke into the town's most famous tomb and stole his head. It was recovered the following year in a Nevada home, but law enforcement and cemetery caretakers noted that the stone Bible, which had been cemented down for some time, was periodically ripped off the tomb.

Talbot Wight, the Deepwood Cemetery Board’s president at the time, told the Daily Mail in 1987 that Lon's hair, skin, and clothing were well preserved until vandals broke the encasing glass. "Evidently, he was still in pretty good shape until July," Wight said.

But when Lon's skull was photographed for the newspaper's front page, it featured no hair or skin, both of which likely decomposed quickly after being stolen if not before. The skull was buried in an undisclosed location away from the body so as to not tempt new grave robbers, and the tomb was re-sealed with marble in an attempt to prevent further damage.

Still, the story of Neva Dorsa and her husband’s remains hasn't died away. It circulates through southwestern Missouri, drawing visitors to Deepwood Cemetery to gaze at the stone plot—just not in the same way Neva had intended.

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